COWBOY OR SHEPHERD?

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. [Psalm 23:1 (NLT)]

cowboy - Losee Canyon - BryceIn A Gentle Thunder, author Max Lucado compares the hero of the Bible, the shepherd, with the hero of the American west, the cowboy. They both herd livestock, their home is the range, and they sleep under the stars. The difference, says Lucado, is that the shepherd knows and loves his sheep because he leads them to be shorn. The cowboy, however, doesn’t get attached to his cattle because he’s leading them to slaughter! While several cowboys drive a herd of cattle and know one another’s names, just one shepherd leads a flock of sheep and it is their names that he knows!

Lucado’s comparison got me thinking about the cowboy heroes of my youth: Marshalls Matt Dillon and Wyatt Earp, widower Lucas McCain (the Rifleman), gunfighter-for-hire Paladin, and the Lone Ranger with his trusty sidekick Tonto. They were larger than life heroes. Along with being excellent shots, they lived by a strict moral code, fought for law and order, and only used their fists or weapons in the cause of justice. I seriously doubt those cowboys bore much resemblance to the real thing.

The masked Lone Ranger stands out in my memory. He and Tonto rode through the West, doing good deeds and fighting evil. The stories were formulaic and, when the townspeople were in dire straits, our heroes would save the day. With the “William Tell Overture” playing in the background, they would ride into town, guns blazing, and rescue the good citizens from the forces of evil. Then without waiting for thanks, they’d ride off into the sunset with Rossini’s music in the background. We’d hear the Lone Ranger call, “Hi-yo, Silver” and someone would ask, “Who was that masked man?”

We no longer face the challenges of frontier life: desperadoes, stagecoach robberies, cattle rustling, hijacked stage coaches, gunfights, claim jumping, or evil land barons. Nevertheless, we need to be rescued from more realistic problems: fear, worry, poor choices, illness, anger, broken marriages, estranged families, doubt, indebtedness, addiction, disabilities, loss, and the challenges of care giving. Sadly, no cowboy in a white hat is going to ride to our rescue and the solution won’t occur in a thirty-minute time slot. Nevertheless, sometimes we seem to think Jesus will do just that (only without the silver bullets and white hat).

Fortunately, as Lucado points out in his book, we don’t have a cowboy; we have a shepherd. Unlike the Lone Ranger, He doesn’t travel around until He comes upon someone in trouble and, unlike Paladin, we don’t have to hire Him. Moreover, He never rides off into the sunset after helping us. Like a good shepherd, Jesus is always with each and every one of us. Being the sheep of His pasture, however, doesn’t mean we won’t encounter predators, pests, harsh environment, storms, or sickness. We’ll occasionally stumble, wander off, or be tempted by poisonous weeds. Having a shepherd means that we’re never alone in those trials. We don’t need to wait for a hero to save the day because our savior is in the day with us! The few times the Lone Ranger was caught, he never was unmasked and no one except Tonto knew his identity. As Christians, however, we know the identity of our shepherd. If we truly follow Him, we’ll never need a cowboy to save the day.

We need a shepherd. We don’t need a cowboy to herd us; we need a shepherd to care for us and to guide us. He’s not a cowboy, and we aren’t cattle. He doesn’t brand us, and we’re not on the way to the market. He guides, feeds, and anoints. And Word has it that he won’t quit until we reach the homeland. [Max Lucado]

I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. [John 10:14-15 (NLT)]

Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls. [1 Peter 2:24-25 (NLT)]

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WITH AUTHORITY

When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. [Matthew 7:28-29 (NABRE)]

water liliesWhen Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were astounded at his teaching because, unlike the scribes and Pharisees, He taught with “authority.” When the people wondered at Jesus’ authority, they weren’t referring to His ability to speak confidently and persuasively. The Greek word translated as “authority” was exousia which meant power or right; the people wondered at Jesus’ authorization to say the things He said. Rather than teach on their own authority, most rabbis taught on the authority of earlier sages. The Moody Bible Commentary depicts them as virtual “walking footnotes” who merely cited famous teachers and repeated what had been said before by others.

While it’s usually translated as “Verily” or “Truly, I say to you,” Jesus often began His teaching with the words, “Amen, I say to you.” Meaning “truly” or “certainly,” the word “amen” was used at the end of a prayer to confirm its words. It also was said when affirming a pledge; saying “amen” at the end of an oath made the vow valid and binding. By saying, “amen” before He spoke, Jesus was guaranteeing the truth of His words: His distinctive power and right. In effect, Jesus was announcing, “I say this to you indisputably, unequivocally, and with the fullest authority.”

A perfect example of Jesus’ claim of authority is found in His lesson about building on a solid foundation (written about yesterday). His simile echoed one used by many Jewish rabbis but with one very important difference. In the rabbis’ version, the solid foundation was to be the Torah; in Jesus’ version, the unshakable foundation was His word! His audience must have been shocked by those words; it’s no wonder they marveled at the authority He claimed.

When we look at the authority with which Jesus taught and acted, we can see why the priests, teachers and elders felt their position threatened. When they demanded to know by whose authority Jesus acted and spoke, they weren’t interested in an answer; they just wanted to trick Him into saying something that would label Him as an eccentric fanatic or a blasphemer. Like a true rabbi, Jesus answered their question with one of His own and asked where John the Baptist got his authority. Instead of backing Jesus into a corner, He’d backed them into one. If they said John had no authority, the people would be angry and, if they said John’s authority was from God, they’d have to answer for not believing and supporting the Baptizer. When they refused to answer, so did Jesus.

It had been a long dry spell for the people of Palestine; before John, the last time God spoke was through the prophet Malachi more than 400 years earlier. When Jesus spoke, the people were again hearing the Word of God! The difference was that John and the other prophets knew they were mere messengers; the words they spoke were not their own. When Jesus spoke, he wasn’t God’s messenger; He was God’s Son. Jesus didn’t just have authority; He was the incarnate Authority of God!

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life. [John 5:24 (NABRE)]

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SINKING

Everyone who hears my teaching and applies it to his life can be compared to a wise man who built his house on an unshakable foundation. When the rains fell and the flood came, with fierce winds beating upon his house, it stood firm because of its strong foundation. [Matthew 7:24-15 (TPT)]

Mt. Hayden - Grand CanyonWhile summer is hurricane season here in Florida, early spring is “sinkhole season.” For most property owners, a sinkhole is little more than a headache but, for some, it means the loss of their homes and possibly their lives. Seven weeks ago, two families north of here lost their homes and belongings as the earth collapsed beneath them, leaving a chasm at least 40-feet wide and 60-feet long. Back in 2013, a man went to sleep and literally disappeared as he, his bed and then his entire bedroom vanished into the earth; his body was never recovered.

Here in the “Sunshine State,” our homes are built on limestone that dissolves easily in rainwater; as a result, the underground becomes honeycombed with cavities. Sometimes, a cavity becomes too big to support its ceiling and collapses, leaving a gaping hole at the surface. Too much or too little water can trigger these sinkholes. Although cavities filled with rainwater can support their ceiling, when drought causes them to empty out, they can’t. On the other hand, in a heavy rain, the sudden flood of groundwater rushing into a cavity combined with the weight of pooled water on the surface also can lead to the ground’s collapse.

When purchasing our house of poured concrete, I knew it was hurricane resistant but I never gave any thought to the strength of the ground beneath it. Many of us build our lives in much the same way. Attention is given to looking good on the surface but our lives are not built on God’s bedrock. Instead of a drought or torrential rains jeopardizing our stability, it’s things like job loss, illness, miscarriage, divorce, addiction, mental illness, teenage rebellion, betrayal, depression, boredom, and loss that threaten our weak foundation.

As a carpenter, Jesus knew all about the building of houses when He spoke about foundations at the end of His Sermon on the Mount. Two houses experience the same challenges but only the house built on rock can endure life’s storms. In case his listeners didn’t understand His point, Jesus clearly explained it: a life built upon His teaching was built on a foundation of bedrock and wouldn’t fail.

Since most sinkholes occur in the central part of our state and only a few small ones have occurred near us, I’m not worried about them. Nevertheless, we do look for signs of trouble such as leaks or structural cracks in our floors or walls. Sinkholes can be prevented if geotechnical experts are called in time and the necessary repairs or remediation are done. Those houses I mentioned didn’t have to disappear into an abyss and neither do our lives. Lives built on shaky foundations can be saved. The salvage expert to be consulted is Jesus who will shore up our lives with His living word. Moreover, unlike that man who disappeared into the ground, nobody can fall so far into the abyss that Jesus can’t lift them out. Let us all build our lives on the bedrock of Jesus Christ!

But everyone who hears my teaching and does not apply it to his life can be compared to a foolish man who built his house on sand. When it rained and rained and the flood came, with wind and waves beating upon his house, it collapsed and was swept away. [Matthew 7:26-27 (TPT)]

Could there be any other god like you? You are the only God to be worshiped, for there is not a more secure foundation to build my life upon than you. [Psalm 18:31 (TPT)]

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IT’S JUST BEGINNING

We know that our body—the tent we live in here on earth—will be destroyed. But when that happens, God will have a house for us. It will not be a house made by human hands; instead, it will be a home in heaven that will last forever. [2 Corinthians 5:1 (NCV)]

butterweedI can’t understand why a young mother lies on her deathbed when an elderly Alzheimer’s victim whose mind is long gone remains in this world. I will never comprehend why one person suffers a debilitating disease for years and another person breezes through life with nary an ache or pain. I wonder how a young family can be wiped out in a car accident when the drunk driver who caused the crash survives without a scratch. I will never grasp why some people are in such despair that they take their lives while others bravely fight to take each breath. I don’t know why one child is born with multiple birth defects when his sibling is the picture of perfect health or why one child is abused and another one is cherished. Life often seems incredibly unfair!

How can we make sense of the wicked prospering while the godly suffer let alone understand random shootings or terrorist attacks? How can we make sense of a world that makes absolutely no sense? It’s not fair and yet we can’t even cry “foul!” There was nothing fair about Jesus suffering and dying for our sins!

The answer to my query is that, because mankind sinned, we live in a broken world: a world that is not as God meant it to be. That’s not a very satisfying answer but, if we truly believe that God is good and that it is He (rather than some cosmic roulette wheel) who is sovereign over the world, we must trust Him. There are divine reasons for all that passes through His hands and those reasons are not ours to know. It is God who is the treasure and not the various blessings He bestows on any of us in this life. The trials endured by us or others do not permit us to put God on trial.

While the here-and-now makes little sense to me, there is one thing I do understand: our trials are short-lived but the blessings of the godly are eternal! Whatever happens in this world is just a small part of the rest of our lives. We’re merely in the preface of the best book ever written or viewing the trailer for the greatest movie ever produced. We’re seeing only a rehearsal of the finest ballet ever danced and have heard just the prelude to the most beautiful symphony ever composed. We’re in the lobby of the grandest hotel ever built and have tasted but a bite of an appetizer in the most delicious feast ever prepared. We’re barely out of the driveway on an extraordinary never-ending journey. Let us take comfort in knowing the best is yet to come!

Life would be void, senseless and of no portent if our existence here for 70 years or more were to end as we draw our last physical breath. Our life on earth is but a drop of a moment in the ocean of time. To dis-acknowledge God would be to admit the futility, the hopelessness of existence. It would be to place reliance merely upon flesh, the physical body and the physical structure of man … It would be to deny the presence and existence of a soul. [Lionel Luckhoo]

The Lord All-Powerful will prepare a feast on this mountain for all people. It will be a feast with all the best food and wine, the finest meat and wine. On this mountain God will destroy the veil that covers all nations, the veil that stretches over all peoples; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away every tear from every face. He will take away the shame of his people from the earth. The Lord has spoken. [Isaiah 25:6-8 (NCV)]

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Now God’s presence is with people, and he will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.” The One who was sitting on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new!” [Revelation 21:3-5 (NCV)]

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ENDLESS TREASURES

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. [John 10:10 (RSV)]

black swallowtail butterflyJesus said he came so that we’d have life abundantly and the Greek word translated as abundantly was perisson, meaning exceedingly abundant, beyond measure, or more than one would anticipate or expect. Jesus isn’t talking just ample or even plentiful; he’s speaking of something so fulfilling, so magnificent, that it’s beyond our wildest dreams! This abundance, however, has nothing to do with wealth, power, position, or possessions because none of those things will pass into eternity with us. Our new life in Christ is abundant by heaven’s standards, not ours and includes eternal life, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, salvation, purpose, wisdom, hope, mercy, spiritual gifts, the church, and the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

In Ephesians 3:8, this abundance is translated as the “endless treasures” (NLT) or “unsearchable riches of Christ.” (RSV) Indeed, there is no bottom to our Lord’s treasure chest of blessings! Although this abundance will not be fully realized in our earthly lives, it begins at the moment of conversion but we can miss some of God’s treasures in the here and now when we don’t intentionally seek them. Jesus gives a whole new richness to our lives but, if we want to truly experience that abundance, we must give Him more than our Sundays—we must give Him our all. He must be present in every moment and all aspects of life—in the way we appreciate our surroundings, interact with people, treat the environment, deal with our emotions, take care of our bodies, apply our minds, select our entertainment, manage our money, utilize our talents, share our faith, spend our leisure time, and perform our work. It is only when there is more of Him and less of us that we will know how rich our lives really can be.

The abundant life given us by Christ isn’t found in what we already have or might get. It is found in the way we live: one day at a time, intentionally abiding in Him, choosing to be aware of His presence in all things, and by being good stewards of His many blessings.

Jesus set us free to live the abundant life by being all that He has created us to be and accomplishing all that He has planned for us to do. [Sharon Jaynes]

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (RSV)]

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COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. [Mark 10:29-30 (NLT)]

mockingbird dangerLast year, Forbes magazine published a list of the most and least trusted professionals. It should come as no surprise that, with only an 8% approval rating, members of Congress and car salesmen were at the bottom of the list. Nurses were at the list’s top but, even then, only 84% of the public thought them honest and ethical. After all, too many nurses have promised, “This won’t hurt,” when it really did. Jesus, however, was brutally honest about life—it would hurt and life wouldn’t be trouble-free when people took up their crosses and followed Him.

After the rich young man who was unwilling to give up his possessions and follow Jesus departed, Peter reminded the Lord that His disciples had given up everything to be His followers. Having met the requirements of discipleship given to the rich man, implicit in Peter’s statement was the question, “What’s in it for us?”

In His answer, Jesus promised blessings both in this life and in the next. Whatever His disciples had sacrificed would be returned one hundredfold. Getting back 100% would be getting back exactly what had been forsaken but a return of a hundredfold is one hundred times better! This, however, is not a prosperity promise; while Jesus tells his disciples their lives will be richer, He never promises they’ll be wealthier. The people and things they lose are literal but the people and possessions gained are spiritual. After all, while not of substance, a soul is irreplaceable and its worth is incalculable. When adopted as one of God’s children, Christ’s followers get a new family in His church, a home in His Kingdom, and eternal life.

But then Jesus got brutally honest; tacked smack dab in the middle of those blessings and the promise of eternal life is His promise of persecution. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reiterated that the cost of discipleship would be sacrifice, persecution, suffering and trials. Unlike nurses, He told us that it would hurt. Life doesn’t necessarily get easier when we follow Jesus, but He promises it will become better (and the two are not the same thing).

Living in Florida, like being a disciple of Christ, comes at a cost. A cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost includes dangers like venomous snakes, black bears, poisonous cane toads, toxic plants, hurricanes, feral pigs, alligators, sink holes, fire ants, panthers, and even stinging caterpillars. Other negatives include the expense of air conditioning, seasonal traffic, and mosquitoes! That cost, however, is more than offset by the benefits of living in a tropical paradise of forever summer, beautiful birds, beaches, colorful flowers, ocean breezes, early-bird specials and no state income tax!

A cost-benefit analysis of discipleship tells us the price we pay is our lives but the benefits of God’s Kingdom and eternal life outweigh the cost a hundredfold! There certainly are times serving Jesus and His church with our time, talents, and money seems a heavy price to pay but true discipleship (and all of the sacrifice, trials and even persecution that arise from it) comes with the territory just as learning to live with hurricanes comes with Florida! In both cases, it’s more than worth it.

Not one man has ever sacrificed for his Lord without being richly repaid. If the cross is only contrasted with earthly pleasures lost, it may seem hard and threatening. But when the cross is weighed in the balances with the glorious treasures to be had through it, even the cross seems sweet. [Walter J. Chantry]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? [Mark 8:34-36 (NLT)]

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